This weekend, the Metrograph theater in New York City’s Lower East Side will be screening "Food-on-Film: A Weekend with Alton Brown," featuring six of Food52 friend Alton Brown’s favorite food films. They’re all classics, and readily available. We’ll be running short essays throughout the week on each one. Check out the previous entries here.
Though Hong Kong actor-director Stephen Chow is most widely known in the West for Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, two raucously acrobatic comedic send-ups of wuxia films released in the early aughts, the antecedent to this was 1996’s The God of Cookery. The film’s brand of humor is, like a lot of Chow’s output, rather brusque and indelicate—the story pivots around a celebrity chef, played by Chow himself, driven by unbearable self-importance. He is boorish and self-obsessed, and he routinely rigs cooking contests to his own benefit. The problem is that he can’t actually cook. He is, plainly, a hack, but he's assumed the burdensome mantle of the "God of Cookery," a celebrity avatar for a fawning public who engages with him through breathless fanfare. Soon enough, he is exposed as a fraud by a new, younger cook named Bull Tong, who assumes the title in his stead.
What follows is a film wherein Chow, the original God of Cooking, must work tirelessly to claim this title back rightfully as his—or, really, to earn it. Circumstance renders him homeless and itinerant, and he enrolls in cooking school wearing the disguise of a Shaolin Monastery; there, he finds out that he’s actually good at it.
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The film culminates in a duel between these two culinarily deified men, jostling for a title they both believe is theirs. I would stick with the film for its climax, wherein an obstinate female judge (Nancy Sit) finds herself bowled over by Chow’s barbecue pork rice in the midst of their duel. She begins to imagine herself rolling around in a dish of barbecue pork rice, so fervent is her gastronomic ecstasy, writhing with the same abandon Ann-Margret rolled around in baked beans in Tommy (1975).
I admit that I’ve never quite shared the affection for Chow’s films that a number of people—including Alton Brown—have. I had a hard time with Shaolin Soccer; I couldn’t get through Kung Fu Hustle. I've found the stylistic crutches he leans on—such as frequent sequences of potty humor, or the tendency for inanimate objects to suddenly become agile, like when cutlery goes flying and slices limbs—too aggressive. For a time, I'm afraid this wasn't exactly an unpopular opinion to have. The God of Cookerydidn’t enjoy the privilege of a United States theatrical release in the nineties. Only now have critics begun to suspect that these films would’ve had an audience in a period when Austin Powers, with no shortage of vulgarity, was commanding the box office.
Watching this film, I've finally started to "get it"; The God of Cookery is certainly the funniest film in this series of classics that Alton Brown has curated, and it is, too, I’d argue, the least known—it’s so enjoyable that one might not catch wind of the fact that it is, at its core, a film about one man's growing groundswell in confidence about his culinary abilities. In his liner notes, Alton Brown laments the rough-edged raggedness of Chow’s work here compared to his more refined stylism later on, and that seems to be the reigning consensus about the film. But therein lies The God of Cookery's charm—it is a film that, like its hero, is just figuring it out as it goes along.
Have you seen The God of Cookery? Let us know in the comments!
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.